By Rami G. Khouri
August 03, 2013
Hold on to your seats, for the four most powerful and influential Arab countries – Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Egypt – are all experiencing significant, sometimes violent, internal changes that touch on the most basic elements of identity, power and national authority. What happens in those countries in the years ahead will shape the Middle East for generations perhaps, creating new patterns of stable statehood on the way. Saudi Arabia is not experiencing the upheavals of Iraq, Syria and Egypt, but its new internal dynamics portend historic changes underway in that country and throughout the Gulf – because some citizens no longer accept blindly to follow the rules of the foundational tenets of Saudi-Wahhabi doctrine.
The worsening carnage in Syria, the sharp increase in bombings and ethnic cleansing in Iraq in the past few months, and the confrontation between the armed forces and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt are stark reminders of where the modern Arab world stands today on its road to modern statehood. Syria, Iraq and Egypt embody the leading political challenges the Arab world faces: how to shape a stable and equitable pluralistic society; how to achieve an acceptable balance of authority among military and civilian forces; and how to assert religious values in daily and public life without falling into the trap of theocratic autocracy or artificially imposed secularism from above.
That these three historical Arab powerhouses all are experiencing deep conflict or uncertainty is the inevitable consequence of our recent history since the 1950s. We are today dealing with the national wreckages, social carcasses and political diseases of several generations of security-based state-building that provided a thin veneer of stability, but never buttressed this with the durable substance of genuine citizen-anchored nationhood.
The surge in killings in Iraq – over 1,000 people died in July – is most troubling for revealing the combination of weak state security capabilities in the face of resurgent attacks by groups that largely kill their victims on the basis of their sectarian identity. The inability of the Iraqi state to protect its prisons or defend its own citizens is bizarrely juxtaposed against the determination of much of the Iraqi state’s and society’s determination to send troops and support the embattled regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. This completes a linkage between Iranian, Iraqi, pro-Assad Syrian, Hezbollah and Hamas-Islamic Jihad parties that have been working together for some years to maintain their collective regional interests.
The battle in Egypt brings into the open an important fault line that has been lying beneath the region for the past century: This is simply about whether individuals and society are shaped by the divine promise of religious values, or by the post-1770s temporal handiwork of civic-political-national institutions that have been hijacked by security agencies in the modern Arab world.
God or the gun, in fact, is really only basic choice that Arab citizens have faced in recent generations, and it is both unfair and unworkable. The big tragedy is that faced with opportunities that they have had to date in the Middle East and South Asia, religious and military leaders have proven to be fully and embarrassingly incompetent at promoting productive, just and stable societies.
Egypt now reveals the determination of tens of millions of typical Arab citizens seeking that elusive middle ground between gun and God, which is simply pluralistic citizenship and accountable governance under the rule of law. Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt offer different examples of the hard, slow quest for this goal. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states offer another example, which defines citizenship primarily as consumerism, with unaccountable governments spending hundreds of billions of dollars to provide their nationals with every possible material need.
Yet more and more Gulf states’ nationals also seek that elusive middle ground between living in a perpetual shopping mall and having no right to vote or express a political-social opinion on how the state spends its money at home or abroad. Hundreds of Gulf citizens are being jailed or indicted in court for actions such as expressing an opinion on Twitter or Facebook. The sharpest recent example was last week’s decision by a Saudi court to sentence Raif Badawi to seven years in prison and 600 lashes for creating a website where Saudis could share their views on the role of religion and other such issues.
In their own ways, some Saudi and other Gulf citizens have embarked on that epic journey from a traditional, patriarchal, collective society defined mainly by faith and family, to one in which individual citizens have many more rights and options in living out their lives.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR.